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The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist

January 14 - May 1, 2005


(above: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Side of White Barn, 1915, gelatin silver print, 7 5/16 x 9 3/8 inches. ©The Lane Collection Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum announces the exhibition The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist, which will run from January 14 through May 1, 2005. The exhibition includes approximately 75 rare and sometimes unique vintage prints, all drawn from The Lane Collection -- the largest, most comprehensive collection of Sheeler's photographs in the world -- which is on long-term loan at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, The Lily, Mt. Kisco, circa 1918, gelatin silver print, 9 x 7 inches. © The Lane Collection Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and curated by Karen Haas, Gilles Mora, and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. All works in the exhibition have been generously lent by The William H. Lane Collection, owner of the artist's photographic estate.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by Editions du Seuil (in French) and Bulfinch Press (in English), with essays by Stebbins, Mora, and Karen Haas, curator of The Lane Collection.


Special events for the exhibition

Lecture: "The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist"
Karen Haas, curator, The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sunday, January 16, 4:30 PM; St. Francis Auditorium, Museum of Fine Arts, 107 West Palace Avenue.
The lecture will focus on Sheeler's early training as a painter, his life-changing discovery of photography in the 1910s, and the impact that the camera had on his work in all media in the 1920s and '30s.
Family Program: Drawing Precisionist Forms
Saturday, January 22, 9:30­11:30 PM, at the Museum, 217 Johnson Street,
In this family workshop, participants will use the photographs of Charles Sheeler to see objects depicted as geometric shapes, and then make drawings that depict the clean, economic lines of machinery and the classical, structural forms of architecture in the manner of the precisionists.

Text from the exhibition guide:

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) ranks as one of the master modernist photographers of the twentieth century, yet his work in this medium has been exhibited far less than that of his peers, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. More than any of his contemporaries, Sheeler succeeded in bringing the stylistic breakthroughs of the Cubist paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso to his exciting photographs of numerous, indigenous American subjects. Art dealer and critic Marius de Zayas wrote: "It was Charles Sheeler who proved that Cubism exists in nature and that photography can record it." Sheeler was also a highly gifted painter, and his innovative integration of painting and photography foreshadowed much later modernist trends and developments in American art.

Sheeler took up photography as a way to make a living, but it gradually became central to all of his art. Unlike his contemporaries Edward Steichen, Strand, and Edward Weston, he never experimented with the soft-focus, atmospheric effect of the Pictorialist style of the 1910s, through which photographers sought to align their work with painting. This may have been due in part to his beginnings as a commercial photographer and to his having tested and rejected the tenets of Impressionism as a young painting student.

He carried out his first experiments in modern photography beginning about 1915, while making photographs of his eighteenth-century farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, such as Doylestown House, Stairs from Below, c. 1916-17, and Doylestown House, Open Window, c. 1916-17, and the barns of Bucks County, as in Side of White Barn, 1915. These images are radically modern. For example, with his barn image, he severely cropped and insistently flattened the form to focus attention on the sunlit expanse of its vertical boards balanced by horizontal lines, broken only by the dark window at right. In so doing, Sheeler transformed an American vernacular structure into a Cubist composition, making it one of the groundbreaking photographs of its day. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Doylestown House, Open Window, about 1916-17, gelatin silver print, 9 9/16 x 7 1/16 inches. © The Lane Collection Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In writing about Sheeler and his barn photographs in the New York Sun (1920), art critic Henry McBride stated: "Mr. Sheeler is an out and out Modernist. . . . All who look on photography as a means of expression should see these photographs of barns. They rank among the most interesting productions of the kind that have been seen here, and are all the more important as this artist never forgets for a moment that the camera is a machine, and he emphasizes the things a machine can do . . . instead of blurring them into so-called artistic effects, as so many photographers do."

In the late teens, Sheeler was approached by his friends Walter and Louise Arensberg to photograph their extensive collection of modern, African, and ancient American art, and one of the resulting photographs is Walter and Louise Arensberg's New York Apartment, c. 1918-20. Sheeler regularly attended the Arensberg nightly soirées, which drew a lively crowd, including poets William Carlos Williams and Amy Lowell; American painters Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella, and Man Ray; and European expatriates Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Albert Gleizes.

Around this same time, Sheeler collaborated with artist Marius de Zayas on a book featuring photographs of West African objects in de Zayas's collection. In Six West African Figures, c. 1916-17, Fang Figure, c. 1916-17, and Twin-Headed Fan Handle, Congo, c. 1916-17, Sheeler photographed objects against light backgrounds and lit them in inventive ways, sometimes creating multiple, overlapping shadows that echoed their powerful forms. Two years later Sheeler photographed Dan (Ivory Coast) masks in the collection of art collector John Quinn. Among those works are two photographs titled Dan Mask, Female Style, c. 1918. These dramatic images simultaneously honor the extraordinary abstract shapes of the masks while conveying a deep sense of their spirituality.

In the late teens, Sheeler used a hand-cranked movie camera to make a 35-mm film of his first wife, Katharine Baird Shaffer, that survives only in the form of a dozen still photographs, several of which are in the exhibition. Found in his studio after his death -- carefully matted and wrapped together -- these images are some of the most unusual and original of Sheeler's output. They portray Katharine both fully clothed and nude, and in his closely cropped photographs of her nude body, forms read as a series of abstract, rounded shapes. This series was perhaps inspired by the photographs Stieglitz made of Georgia O'Keeffe, but unlike Stieglitz, whose made photographs of his wife over many years, Sheeler's photographs of this subject seem to have been a one-time experiment. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Nude, circa 1918-1919, gelatin silver print, 4 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches. © The Lane Collection Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Sheeler collaborated with Paul Strand in 1920 on a six-minute, silent film known as Manhatta, which is on view in the museum video room, and the exhibition also includes fourteen still photographs from the film that were found in Sheeler's studio after his death. At its initial public showing, in 1921, Manhatta was titled New York the Magnificent and was described by many as the first avant-garde film made in America. It spans an imaginary day in the life of the city beginning with footage of the Staten Island ferry emptying its commuters onto the street and ending with a view of the sun setting over the Hudson River. The film's brief shots (most fewer than ten seconds) range over about five square blocks of lower Manhattan. More than half of the film's camera angles rake either sharply upward or steeply downward, doing away with the horizon line, telescoping space, and emphasizing what Strand called "the towering geometry" of the city.

Sheeler made a distinguished series of photographs of New York buildings that were taken from the forty-first story of the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, four of which are in the exhibition: New York, Towards the Woolworth Building, 1920; New York, Buildings in Shadows, 1920; New York, Park Row Building, Distant View, 1920, and New York, Park Row Building, c. 1920. All look north up Broadway, and each includes at least a portion of the Park Row Building. When placed side by side, these photographs replicate the panning motion of a movie camera to such a degree that it is impossible to imagine Sheeler making this series before his experience with Manhatta. The cinematic aspect of these photographs is further reinforced by the fact that several are details of the same negative. In other words, Sheeler cropped the negatives and enlarged only a detail of them to create an even more abstract, close-up view of the subject.

During the 1920s Sheeler took on freelance photographic assignments for advertising agencies and magazines, and served as the in-house photographer at the Whitney Studio Club and The Arts magazine. He created advertising photographs for products ranging from Champion spark plugs and Kodak film projectors to Firestone tires and L. C. Smith typewriters. In 1926 Sheeler was invited to join the staff at Condé Nast Publications, and over the next several years, he produced approximately one-hundred fifty photographs for either Vanity Fair or Vogue. Although making fashion and celebrity portraits for Condé Nast provided Sheeler with a good income, he described going to work there as "like a daily trip to jail."

In the fall of 1927, Sheeler was commissioned to photograph the Ford Motor Company plant outside Dearborn, Michigan, often simply called the Rouge for the river that ran near it. The photographer -- fascinated by cars and American industry -- claimed that it was "a job made to order" and "incomparably the most thrilling [subject] I have had to work with." Sheeler spent about six weeks at the Ford plant, which covered eleven hundred acres and employed about seventy-five thousand people. Over the course of his stay, he struggled to make visual sense of the vast complex finally deciding to document "details of the plants and portraits of machinery" instead of making panoramic views of the factory and its famous assembly line.

In the end he made fewer than forty photographs at the plant, but the series is regarded as the highpoint of American machine-age photography, such as in Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, 1927; Ford Plant, River Rouge, Pulverizer Building, 1927, and Ford Plant, River Rouge, Ladle on a Hot Metal Car, 1927. The latter was captioned in Ford News in 1931: "Huge ladles, suggesting prehistoric monsters, disgorge their loads of hot metal." Here, as in the earlier interior views of his Doylestown house, Sheeler made functional, architectonic forms mysterious and even profound.

In France in 1929, Sheeler made a thirteen-photograph series of Chartres Cathedral, which he described as the "the vivid experience of a lifetime." Although a Gothic cathedral might seem an unusual subject for a modernist photographer, Sheeler approached his subject in much the same way as he had with the Ford plant. Most of the photographs concentrate on details of Chartres's distinctive structure -- the repeating forms of buttresses and niches along its roof and the alternating light-and-dark patterns of sunlight falling across the building's façade.

Although Sheeler is best known as a painter and photographer of industrial subjects, his works depicting these subjects made up only a small percentage of his output. Motivated in part by the interest in early American crafts and furniture, which he shared with Edith Halpert, his dealer in the 1930s, Sheeler shifted his attention in the late 1920s and early 1930s to very personal photography projects that document the interior of structures, as had his earlier Doylestown house photographs. In South Salem, Living Room, 1929, Sheeler presents a perspective that suggests his standing on a ladder while making the photograph, and as a result, the image tends to emphasize the crazy-quilt forms and patterns of the room's rugs, textiles, and furniture.

Sheeler was commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1938 to do a series of photographs about power in American industry, including Power Series, Wheels, 1939, and Power Series, View of Boulder Dam, 1939. Sheeler and his second wife, Musya, traveled extensively during 1939, while Sheeler made photographs of, among other things, Boulder Dam, "the world's largest steam power plant," and the installation of a massive Tennessee Valley Authority turbine. The resulting series represented Sheeler's return to the industrial subjects that he had photographed earlier at River Rouge. In their closely-cropped format, Sheeler's power series celebrated the force, beauty, geometry, and precision of his subjects. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Power Series, View of Boulder Dam, 1939, gelatin silver print. © The Lane Collection Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Whatever his subject, Sheeler created photographs throughout his career that demonstrate his innovative sensitivity and keen awareness of modernist esthetics and that define him as one of the leading modernist photographers of his time.

Curators for the exhibition, which was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are Karen Haas, Gilles Mora, and Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. All works in it have been generously lent by The Lane Collection, owner of the artist's photographic estate.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these additional articles and essays concerning American photography:

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Resource Library.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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